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San Clemente Journal

All The Parts That Make Us Whole ... Cultural Diversity in the Spanish Village

Feb 05, 2004 05:01PM ● By Don Kindred
by Joe Moore

     When Ole Hanson laid out his plans for his little Spanish Village by the Sea we can only guess that he had no idea of the wide diversity and genuine cultural melting pot he would someday create. San Clemente is home to many more cultures, sub-cultures and heritages than the casual look may suggest. 
     For instance, take a look at many of the restaurants around the downtown area. What can you see? An Italian restaurant owned by a man born in Italy, a Thai restaurant that is Thai family owned, a Danish bakery and so on.
     Expand beyond food choices to see many of our local businesses are owned or managed by diverse cultures with interesting traditions all their own. Go one step deeper to our residents and you can see many come from a variety of backgrounds both exotic and less so. Each family has its own traditions, both new and old, and its own way of celebrating and expressing these traditions and cultures. And their common thread is they live or work in San Clemente.
     Take Jake and Pia Valstar. They were born and raised in Holland. Jake hails from Rotterdam, and Pia from a small village called Dirksland on an island in the Dutch country. They came directly to Southern California in 1956 and raised a family while Jake worked as an engineer. “We were sponsored by the Dutch club of Los Angeles, because we had no relatives in America,” states Pia Valstar. “We moved to San Clemente in 1980 after spending some time at the campground here.” When asked what she misses the most from ‘the old country’ Pia says, “The coziness. Friends and family units are much more integrated and open. Meals are shared and you never close your drapes or lock your doors. You always expect company. While it is less private I miss the openness of it.” Discussing holidays she talks about how the big celebration used to be on St. Nicholas Day (December 6th) when they would put out their wooden shoes with a carrot for St. Nicholas’ horse (instead of reindeer), and he would replace it with a ‘chocolate letter’. This is a bar of chocolate with your initial carved in it. 
     You can often see Jake and Pia helping out at the Robin’s Nest downtown.
     Speaking of downtown, if you wish to quickly understand how divergent our town is, take a walk up and down Del Mar. There are many shops that announce their international heritage. For instance start toward the top with a little shop named “Best of Britain” that is owned and managed by Pauline Duck. You know as soon as Pauline says “Hello” that she is originally from Great Britain - Weymouth, Dorset to be precise. She came to America in 1968 and San Clemente twenty years ago after her British husband was transferred to the ‘Colonies’. One of the more fun traditions she has ‘brought over the pond’ with her, is to celebrate Guy Fawkes Night every year. In England every November 5th bonfires are set alight, effigies of Fawkes are burned, and fireworks are set off all over the isle of Great Britain. Who was Guy Fawkes? He was only England’s most notorious traitor. Fawkes tried to blow up the Parliament building with 36 barrels of gunpowder in 1603 under James I (literally). He was caught, tortured and executed. It is still unclear as to whether the British are celebrating Fawkes’ capture or the attempted destruction of the government. But in either case it has become England’s version of our 4th of July celebration. Pauline has also got Americans going ‘crackers’ at Christmas. “Crackers” are decorative party favors widely used in Great Britain to celebrate a variety of special occasions and festive events. They consist of a beautifully wrapped and decorated cardboard cylinder containing a paper tissue party hat, a motto (British joke or riddle), a snap (popping device), and a small gift or novelty item. Pauline says, “So many people have started buying these for Christmas day I now run out almost every year.” She originally began the shop because she “couldn’t find many of the things I left behind in England.” If you can’t take it with you, open a store for it.
     Go down the street a little and you can chat with Parzod Mehdizadeh who was born in Iran. She owns the 5 Elements boutique and spa. Though she moved to the U.S. when she was only two, her parents have instilled many cultures and ideas in her upbringing including her Iranian roots. Both her parents were born in Iran. Her father was in the U.S. Air Force throughout most of her childhood. Her parents instilled a respect and love of multiple cultures as they lived in many places, a good way to teach any child respect for others. One of their favorite traditions is to celebrate the Persian New Year. In Iran this day is not the 1st of January, but rather the first day of spring. Part of the celebration includes adorning a table with seven things that begin with the letter “S” in Persian. Mostly these are herbs or plants, but they also add decorated eggs and fruit along with other garnishments. Parzod likens it to the Christmas tree meeting the Easter celebration without the religious significance.

Mongkut Thai on Ave. Del Mar.
     Now venture across the street to the corner of Del Mar and Ola Vista and walk into Avila’s El Ranchito. If you’re looking for Mexican heritage, the Avila’s can fix you up a healthy serving. Even the cover of their menu boasts that their family came from Guanajuato, Mexico. Victor Avila and his parents moved to the U.S. with his three siblings when he was nine. Eventually his parents began a coffee shop in Los Angeles in 1966 and today almost the entire Avila family is still in the restaurant business. “Latino’s are full of culture and traditions,” Victor said. “We get all 27 of us together every Thanksgiving and go to Cabo [San Lucas]. My kids still do things with their grandfather. They even ran a marathon together.” The Avila’s do a lot of community service work primarily forwarding health and education concerns for other Latinos. They celebrate both the life they had in Mexico and the one they have here in America.
     After you leave El Ranchito head toward the ocean and once you pass just a few doors you’ll cross a couple of continents and wander into Thailand. At the Mongkut Thai Restaurant, Donnie and Ning Laitipaya are both deeply rooted in the traditions and still celebrate many of their ethnic holidays. This includes the three main Buddhist holidays celebrating Buddha’s birth, enlightenment and passing. They also celebrate their New Year on April 13th. They celebrate by having a ‘pot luck’ dinner at the temple where they also take bread that is blessed by monks and then shared or given to others. They also make donations to help their fellow countrymen and women in Thailand on both the Queen and King’s birthdays of August 11th and December 5th, respectively. Employees at Mongkut are also of Thai descent and they take as much pride in their heritage and their background as do the Laitipaya’s.
     There are many more examples of different cultures and countries. I have only touched on a few. The next time you stroll down one of our beautiful streets or along the sand, see how many cultures and countries you can spot living, working and enjoying our Spanish Village by the sea. You may see more cultures than in a dozen vacations, all right here making up the sum total of all our different parts.

Ning Laitipaya
Victor Avila
Pauline Duck
Parzod Mehdizadeh
Pia Valstar